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E-Mails Show Justice Dept. in Damage-Control Mode

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill Jan. 18, 2007.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill Jan. 18, 2007.

A new collection of Justice Department documents landed with a thud on Capitol Hill Monday night, providing new insight into the growing furor over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys in 2006.

Heralding the release of 3,000 pages of material, the Justice Department called the action "virtually unprecedented."

Spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said the goal is to show Congress and the American people that "the department did not remove the U.S. attorneys for improper reasons, such as to prevent or retaliate for a particular prosecution in a public corruption matter."

Whether the Justice Department succeeds at making its case could determine whether Attorney General Alberto Gonzales holds onto his job amid calls for his resignation.

The documents released Monday show eight U.S. attorneys trying to make sense of their dismissals, as the Justice Department hunkers down to weather the fallout — and sometimes mocks the people who were fired.

On Feb. 1, 2007, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan, Margaret Chiara, wrote to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty:

Everyone who knows about my required resignation is astonished that I am being asked to leave. Now that it has been widely reported that departing U.S. Attorneys have either failed to meet performance expectations or that they acted independently rather than follow Justice Department directives, the situation is so much worse. You know that I am in neither category. This makes me so sad. Why have I been asked to resign? The real reason, especially if true, would be a lot easier to live with. Margaret.

At the end of February, Scolinos e-mailed a group of her colleagues to ask how to handle the announcement of Chiara's departure:

I believe this will generate another round of rough stories as expected. Her press release paints a pretty darn good record and emphasizes her many "firsts" as a woman, which the media will no doubt play up.

A month later, Chiara again wrote the deputy attorney general with a plea:

Paul: I respectfully request that you reconsider the rationale of poor performance as the basis for my dismissal ... politics may not be a pleasant reason, but the truth is compelling. Know that I am considered a personification of ethics and productivity ... the notoriety of being one of the eight fired U.S. attorneys coupled with my age being constantly cited in the press is proving to be a formidable obstacle in seeking employment.

In the case of a different U.S. attorney, "Bud" Cummins of Arkansas, a chain of e-mail showed miscommunication and anger among the Justice Departrment's leaders over the rationale for the man's dismissal.

After Deputy Attorney General McNulty told Congress that Cummins was asked to step down so a political ally could take his place, Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse wrote:

The Attorney General is extremely upset with the stories on the U.S. attorneys this morning ... he also thought some of the deputy attorney general's statements were inaccurate ... from a straight news perspective, we just want the stories to die...

In a statement Monday night, Roehrkasse said the attorney general was upset because he believed Cummins was fired because of performance issues.

Cummins wrote a letter to the Justice Department saying, "I have no hard feelings."

In e-mail, he discusses writing a letter in support of his replacement, Tim Griffin, but adds: "As predicted, my wife is strongly opposed to me writing on Tim's behalf, so I still have some work to do there."

He told the Justice Department that he had been asked to testify before Congress, saying "I'm completely neutral to testifying."

Kyle Sampson, who resigned last week as the attorney general's chief of staff, wrote in an earlier e-mail that he thought it would be a bad idea for Cummins to testify, asking how he would answer the following questions:

Did you resign voluntarily? Were you told why you were being asked to resign? Did Griffin [Cummins' replacement] ever talk about being attorney general-appointed and avoiding Senate confirmation?

A month later, Sampson wrote to the Justice Department spokespeople with some good news for them. That e-mail says that according to the top lawyer to Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), the U.S. attorneys issue "has basically run its course."

"They need to get a little more information from us," Sampson predicted. "But that will be it."

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